A moment after Turner had gotten into the grim, murderous rhythm of the front group, the road went up slightly. They were ending the first 17-mile lap, which terminated on a slight uphill, perhaps a quarter-mile long, with a very short, not too steep, hundred-yard rise at the finish line.
The rain continued to dump, and as they churned along, about halfway up the modest incline, Turner saw the most amazing thing happen. The group rode away. He was pushing every bit as hard as he had been, even harder, until finally he was smashing the pedals with every ounce of strength he could muster, but no matter. The heaving, shifting, swirling mass of riders went faster and the gap between him and them, first only a couple of bike lengths, soon became car lengths, then truck lengths, then they crested the start-finish and were gone.
Fortunately, the freezing rain was still there, and when he passed the start-finish he felt all hope and energy vanish, replaced instantaneously by a cold so profound that it seemed to go down into his deepest entrails. A handful of bedraggled spectators shouted listless lies like “They’re not too far off!” and “You can catch them!” and other hopeless platitudes that no one believed, and these falsehoods rang in his ears along with the hiss and slosh of the tires in the muck and the pounding rain on his hairnet and his head and his face and his bare arms.
After a mile or so he heard a big swooshing sound. He looked back and saw a clump of about ten riders overtaking him at breakneck speed. It was the junior field. They pounded by, covering him with spray, which was more insulting than anything else since was already saturated and it was still pouring. A minute or so later a lone junior came by. He was slender and hunched over a light blue Pinarello, and covered though it was in crud Turner envied the gorgeous Italian frame and the Campy Super Record components, a fancier, nicer, slicker rig for a mere kid than he, a grown man, could even think of affording.
Without hesitating, Turner jumped on the junior’s wheel, happy to get some respite from what was going from a miserable, freezing slog to a lonely, miserable, freezing slog.
The junior didn’t say anything, but a moment later a pickup pulled up next to them. It was the kid’s father, and he was livid. “Get the off of his wheel!” he shouted. “You’re in a different race!”
“What do you care?” Turner snarled back. “We’re both dropped and out of contention. Lighten up.”
The father became apoplectic. “Get off of his wheel you bastard or I’ll report you to the chief ref, you’re a goddam cheater, don’t you have any self respect, wheelsucking on a 16-year-old?”
“Oh, shut up,” Turner said, and went back to the business of sitting on the kids’ wheel.
In a flash the guy in the pickup swerved over, deliberately trying to knock Turner down. Freaked out, he leaned and hit his rear brake, sending his bike off onto the shoulder and then into the ditch. “You crazy motherfucker!” Turner screamed, dismounting and dragging his bike back onto the road. Flipping off the driver in disbelief, he hopped back in the saddle as the little drama reached its denouement: The junior grabbed onto the side of the pickup and his dad towed him out of sight, presumably close enough to the front group so that he could get back in with the lead bunch.
He would have shaken he was so angry if he hadn’t already been shaking from the cold. The next car to pull up next to him was Clem’s green Impala. It took him a moment to recognize her and the car, and at first he glared and tensed, ready for some other crazyfuck to try and kill him. “Turner!” she said. “Are you okay?”
“Yeah, I mean no,” he said.
“Want to get in the car?”
He shook his head.
She looked at him for a moment, covered in shit, hopelessly off the back, and nowhere near the end of the race. She could see the welts and the decades old scars there on his face and in his eyes, and it fascinated her, the way the scab was partially torn away and bleeding, and with her eyes she peeled it back, feeling him flinch as she did so, watching the open wound and wondering who had made it, and why, and marveling how much it looked like hers, and clinically noting how stoically he bore it, accepting it as the cost of doing the business of life. “Turner!” she said again, picking at the scab.
“What?” He was angry, but through his rage he saw her leaning over towards the open passenger window, her nipples pressing against her t-shirt like .38-caliber slugs.
“Pull over for a second,” she said.
“I don’t want to fucking pull over!”
“I didn’t ask you if you wanted to pull over. Pull over, goddammit.”
He did. She jumped out of the car and handed him the wool Santini jacket. He put it on but his hands were too frozen to fasten it, so she zipped it for him. She’d never seen a bike race before, but as he pushed off with one foot she instinctively put both hands on his butt and, running behind him, gave him a mighty push. In those few short seconds she had gotten soaked. He reached down and tightened his toe straps and disappeared into the deluge.
She flipped the car and drove back to the high school.
In what was an infinity for him but less than an hour for her, Turner crossed the finish line, stopping to let Clem unzip his jacket so the chief ref could see his number. The chief ref shook his head and scribbled something on his clipboard.
As he stumbled to the car he saw one of the officials giving medals to the juniors, who had finished long ago. The kid on the Pinarello had gotten third. “Thanks, Dad,” Turner muttered.
Inside the car Clem turned the heater on high. “Your lips are purple,” she said.
He convulsed for a few minutes, stripping off the wet clothing until he was naked as she toweled him off. Then it began to hit him. He screamed.